Wednesday, June 17, 2009





A little more than 11 months from today, California voters will have a rare opportunity to free their government from the kind of ideological gridlock that leads to lengthy budget stalemates, one-sided elections and control of this state's politics by special interests at the extremes of both major parties.

The chance will come via a ballot proposition that doesn't yet have a number, but one that should be the No. 1 priority of every voter contemplating next year's election. For this could be more important to California's future than the outcome of the races for governor and U.S. senator that will headline the ballot.

The solution to many of California’s governmental problems is called the open primary, known to some as the Louisiana primary because that often-benighted state has had the same system for more than 50 years. An identical system now operates in Washington state, given a stamp of approval by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier in this decade.

Here's now it works: All candidates are listed together on the ballot in each primary election, just as they now are in special elections. Everyone can vote for whoever he or she likes, regardless of party affiliation for either voter or candidate. The top two vote-getters advance to a runoff in the November general election, while the rest stay home, regardless of party.

Here's how things now work: In almost all elections, candidates are listed by party in the primary and voters can only cast ballots for candidates in the party where they're registered. Because almost all legislative and congressional districts in this state are designed to be dominated by one party or the other, primary election outcomes are controlled by labor unions or the far left on the Democratic side and by the far right among Republicans.

This leads to a Legislature and a congressional delegation loaded with ideologues, boasting very few lawmakers willing to compromise on issues from taxes to abortion, immigration and the environment. Gridlock often results, with late budgets, late tax refunds, state office closures and great uncertainty the frequent result.

Voters gave themselves a reprieve from all this by passing Proposition 198 in 1996, a measure that let voters cross over and cast ballots in whichever party primary they liked. It produced moderate winners in some districts, much to the chagrin of hardliners in both major parties.

So they went to court together and got the plan thrown out on the grounds that Republicans should decide their own primaries and Democrats theirs. California Democrats relented a bit afterward and allowed independents to vote in Democratic primaries. Republicans for years didn't allow independents into theirs.

The new plan is different because it takes primaries away from the parties while still showing party affiliations on the ballot. That small difference is the reason courts have upheld this system.

An almost identical proposal was defeated here three years ago as Proposition 62, when both big parties fought it. Similarly, the Louisiana and Washington plan lost in Oregon. Both parties opposed it there, and labor unions spent heavily to kill it.

The same interests will be at work here against the new proposal, which will be on the ballot only because Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria insisted on it as a condition of casting his deciding vote for a February state budget compromise.

New state Democratic chairman John Burton has vowed to lead the attack on the proposition, whatever its number turns out to be. He called the open primary plan "very devious," noting it will usually prevent minor party candidates from appearing on general election ballots. That, of course, would end when minor parties start running strong candidates.

Republicans take the same view, sticking up for minor parties for which they ordinarily have absolutely no use or sympathy.

Both big parties point out the open system could result in runoffs between two candidates from the same party. That, of course, is fine because when it happens, one will generally represent the extreme wing of the party and the other will be more of a moderate, producing a true contest in the runoff.

The bottom line: If voters want to make a real change in state government and get rid of the sort of deadlocks that have produced months-long budget delays and worse, they will have to see through the mud that will be slung at this proposal. That won't be easy with big money at work against it, but the bottom line is that if they defeat this measure next June, voters will have themselves to blame whenever California seems ungovernable.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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